The Christmas tree that towered over the stage of the Cadogan Hall on 17th December 2015 gave a magical, festive atmosphere to this concert at Cadogan Hall. The Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London had their debut here in 2013, and two years later their reputation for innovative programming and quality performances remains untarnished. Conductor Christopher Petrie is an innovative musician carving out an exhilarating career with his music, described by BBC Radio 3 presenter Max Reinhardt as ‘haunting, pulsing, and primal’.
The first half of the concert tonight was dedicated to Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943) Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, composed after the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony. Having taken hypnosis treatment for depression, Rachmaninoff soon after finished the three movements of his new Piano Concerto, dedicated to the doctor who had treated him. The Concerto was a resounding success at its first performance in Moscow in October 1901 and remains his most popular work.
The pianist tonight was Leslie Howard who, with more than 80 concertos under his belt, has played with many of the world’s greatest orchestras and most distinguished conductors. Howard effortlessly ploughed through the long chain of severe chords opening the concerto, from which the prevailing theme in the strings emerges. The sound between the piano and the orchestra remained perfectly balanced throughout the turbulent and dramatic developments which followed, climaxing in a sense of overwhelming transience before the music – as if too much has been revealed – moved abruptly towards its emphatic close.
The divine second movement was kept quiet, almost introverted at the beginning: a world of intense nostalgia, its opening theme given out by the flute and clarinet accompanied by the piano. The piano and orchestra swapped turns in taking the lyrical, isolated melody, and a tempestuous middle section climaxed with a tremendous solo where Howard’s long trill descrescendoed beautifully into the orchestra, the initial mood returning.
The scornful third movement followed, its sardonic energy soon giving way to a singing theme in the violas and oboe, both poignant and elegant. The initial mood returned now in more sinister guise – its fierce climax followed by a return to the second theme – played with incredible strength and gusto by both Howard and the Orchestra.
Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.2 began the second half of tonight’s concert. Rachmaninoff and Enescu are both great 20th Century musical innovators, though it’s something of an achievement that the words ‘Enescu’ and ‘sold out’ can feature in the same sentence. Enescu’s star – unlike Rachmaninoff’s – has wavered in recent decades, and there’s a concerted effort being made to make his music better known. Certainly, his student Yehudi Menuhin described him as, ‘a man formed by great and natural vital elements, whose every thought and gesture had sweep and breadth’.
The two Romanian rhapsodies, now his best-known works, were composed in Paris in 1901 when he was just twenty and had discovered his own brand of Romantic Romanian nationalism. Whereas the First Rhapsody is fast and extrovert, the second is predominantly slow and inward, concentrating not on dance, but song. The first violin (leader Tanya Sweiry) played solos featuring elements of Romanian folk laments with intricate ornamentation and exotic melodic inflections – her playing was notably authentic and brought the raw folk tunes alive. The music then returned unexpectedly to the scurrying ‘hora lunga’ (round dance) of the First Rhapsody, but here it became a brief memory, swept aside by the languid arabesque on flute that ended the work.
The concert was rounded off with the London Premiere of Huma’s Symphony Carpatica. Huma has lived in Hampshire for two decades and currently promotes bilateral co-operation between Great Britain and Romania, and an underlying symbolic relationship combining the two cultures forms the inspiration behind this symphony. Written in three movements, it purposely avoids the traditional four-movement form: this is a contemporary composition for modern times.
Although initially designated the tempo of Largo to suggest the sweeping expanse of the Carpathian mountains, the first movement meanders through many speeds, constructed with a complex web of ideas that are varied throughout the movement. The triumphant horns together with rich cello melodies made for a sound reminiscent of film music. The second movement, based on two melancholic airs, constantly builds to a broader sound, giving way to the third and final movement – brisk and march-like. Written in variation form, a structure in which an idea is presented and then repeatedly developed, this movement carried us to the energetic close of this work.
An encore of Christmas arrangements by conductor Christopher Petrie himself left the audience feeling jovial after an evening of truly sublime music.
This concert at Cadogan Hall was supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute, Belgravia, London.